Sunday 11 September 2016

A really bad bargain

'Tony Hogan Bought me an Ice Cream Float before he stole my Ma' by Kerry Hudson has a very distinctive title, but I'm not sure where or when I read about it. 

The story is narrated by Janie Ryan, from her birth to about sixteen years old, though her voice is that of an adolescent the entire time. It tells the story of a chaotic and deprived childhood starting in a neglected and rundown area of Aberdeen but gradually taking her to equally rundown areas of other parts of the country where Ma takes her in search of  a better life. Actually, on reflection, Ma does not take her anywhere in search of a better life, they drift on a stale wind of bad decisions from one from place to another with no intent or plan. I read with horrified fascination as I looked through a grubby window into a world I barely knew existed ... I've never watched 'Benefits Street'. Their lives are punctuated by useless and violent men, financial crises and midnight flits. It is a life of grinding poverty and the inability to imagine another way of doing things. What struck me most was the isolation; Ma does not seem to have a single friend. In emergencies she goes to her brother Frankie, her own mother does not appear to give a shit and she looks on her neighbours with suspicion and animosity. She develops a few superficial relationships based on shared drinking but never finds people she can rely on. The picture is painted of Ma and Janie, and then later Tiny, as a strongly bonded unit, they can only rely on each other. What I really had trouble with was the level of casual violence, aggression and conflict in their lives. There is lots of yelling and smacking of children and blaming it on the 'Ryan Temper', and when something goes wrong it is always someone else's fault. Ma never, never learns from experience. She trusts the men who let her down time and time again. When Tiny is born she falls into a post-natal depression and Janie basically become her carer at about seven years old, and in fact it felt like she becomes the grown-up in the relationship.  

I felt that the idea of Janie being able to escape the rut was not credible; she is bright and reads lots of stories as a child, seems to do well at school but still truants and finds no one there to encourage her abilities, only a careers adviser who puts her firmly back in her place. She might have 'street smarts' but she has no life skills, has never seen her mother cook a meal or manage her money or solve problems other than by hiding from them or running away from them. Janie finally finds a friend in Beth when she sits down with the Goths on the school playing field and you feel like it's the first positive thing in her life, so you know it's not going to last. She goes off at the end, not to forge a life for herself but vaguely in search of her mysterious father in London, like her mother, pointlessly expecting a man to be the solution to what is wrong. I was heartbroken; she buys travel sickness tablets (throwing up on journeys was a regular feature of her life) and it's almost as if Kerry Hudson thinks this symbolises some magically found new ability to solve problems by herself.  Although she brushes off the very helpful bloke who approaches her at the coach station I was just left feeling it was inevitable that that was who she would be turning to as soon as her pitiful roll of cash ran out.

"In the second week of comprehensive school I came home to hear Ma roaring with laughter. The last year, since Frankie, had left Ma as thin as skin on a blister and I tried my best to watch for the sharp moments that might leave her raw and sore.
Hearing that laugh made me stomach twist, though I had my own worries resting on my nylon-blazered shoulders. The table had a half-empty whiskey bottle, a pouch of Drum tobacco and a Sun newspaper on it, and before I saw him I knew he was back.
They looked so cosy, the three of them sitting on the sofa, knees pointed into each other's and Tiny, four now, with a sturdy body a miniature of her da's, sitting on his lap. Stupid Tiny, she didn't even know him. Not as stupid as Ma though, because she did.
'Janie!' She was pissed, words sliding off her tongue like oil. 'Look who's come tae visit an' he got yeh a present!'
She sloshed her glass towards the table where a bright yellow tape player sat.
'I wonder who he stole the money off fer that then?'
I didn't want a visitor. I definitely didn't want Doug. I wanted to disappear into the sea of bottle-green uniforms like all the other kids at comp; just another sloping back and shy bobbing head." (p.166)

I was just depressed by this book. I have lived on benefits in my time, for extended periods, and on very low income, and lived in crappy housing, but I guess my advantage was always that I knew life did not have to be like that. I had supportive family and a sense that I was capable of making my own life. I think she was trying to write an upbeat story of redemption but what the book does for me is graphically portray the nature of the poverty trap and how it holds on to its victims. 

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